Learning To See Light

Anyone who has a bit of a flair for photography, or even perhaps who has just got lucky once or twice with a particular shot, has probably been told by an impressed viewer of one of their images that “you have a good eye”. More often than not, what this person means, whether they realise it or not, is simply “this photo has a good composition”.  Photos with good composition engage a viewer for longer than those with a bad composition, they lead the viewer through the frame in a way that the photographer intended, and they tend to stand out from the crowd in a world where we are visually bursting at the seams.  And if you ask a newcomer to photography what are the elements that make up good composition, chances are they will talk primarily about the geometry of a photo – leading lines, rules of thirds, balance, symmetry, uncluttered backgrounds etc. etc.

That same newcomer will have started to realise too that “having a good eye for a photo” means that they are starting to learn to see the potential for a good photo.  But, initially at least, most of us start learning to see those same geometric elements, and not much else. We focus so much on the geometry of the shot that we forget there are other elements to making a good composition.  That was certainly the case for me, and it took me quite a few years to grasp that, far more important than learning to see geometry, in order to construct a well composed photo you need to learn to see light.   By way of a pretty straight forward and real-world example, in this post I’m going to deconstruct how I do that.

There is a real benefit to learning to see light beyond the occasional possibility of making an award-winning or portfolio image, because let’s face it, even for the best of us such images are just a small percentage of the images we create day to day.  No, even for those day-to-day photos, learning to see light is a worthwhile thing to do. Whenever we raise our camera to our eye, there is literally an infinite number of possible images we could create.  And it’s easy to get overwhelmed by those possibilities with one of two outcomes: you either “spray and pray” by taking photos of everything in the hope that something good happens to be captured in amongst the rest, or you get paralysed like an indecisive kid in a sweetshop, and don’t know where to begin.  If you learn to make the starting point the light (and specifically, the ambient light that’s already present without you doing anything), and let that, rather than the possible geometries of the scene in front of you, lead what you do next, you’ll realise that infinite number of possible images reduces to a finite number of worthwhile images, led by the light.

The good news is that you actually don’t need any gear to learn to see light, other than your eyes, but I do find it really useful to use one piece of gear – and no it’s not a light meter.  It’s actually my camera.  Let me explain by way of example.

The photo at the top of this post was taken on a crisp clear winter day with the sun low in the clear blue sky.  With no clouds to diffuse the light from the sun, it was hard light – the transition between what it lit and what it didn’t lit being clearly visible as an easy-to-define hard edge.  That’s the kind of light that can be difficult to work in, so I needed to pay close attention to it, particularly in the church where pretty much everything apart from where I positioned myself was outside of my control.

Early on in proceedings I stood at the back of the church and took this photo:

This photo tells me a lot about the light.  For instance I can tell that all of that sunlight is coming in through windows on my right (and so can conclude that the altar is towards the east, that right hand wall is south facing, and at the back of the church I’m towards the west.  Why would I want to know about that?  Well because it tells me what the light from the sun is going to do as the ceremony progresses.  That sun is going to gradually move west (towards the back of the church) and so the shafts of light that are coming in those windows are going to gradually move further forward along the left hand wall, and further to the right along the wall behind the altar.

ASIDE: Figuring out where the sun is headed, and how that will impact the light in your scene is a good thing generally, but especially during a wedding ceremony where you have zero control of what happens when. For instance I will need to photograph the vows differently if only one of the couple is in that pool of light, versus if both of them are in (or out) of it.  If I know ahead of time that it’s likely to be the former case I have time to consider my options in terms of where I stand, what I expose for, and what lens I choose.

There’s more information to be extracted from this photo about the light.  Let’s underexpose it to make things easier to see – this is probably the most useful thing you can do, actually, if using your camera to see the light.

Hopefully now you can see pretty clearly where that sunlight that’s coming through those windows on the right is falling. There’s a pool of light falling on the altar, a pool of light falling near the singer you see standing up at the camera left side of the altar, and some light skimming across some of the guests sitting in the seats.

So, for instance, if I want to capture some candids of guests, i’ll most likely focus my attention on those that are being lit by that ray of light.  And as time goes on, different guests will be lit, so I can still capture candids of an array of guests, without necessarily having to fight the light.

Before we move on I want you to look at the ceiling above the altar too.  There you can see six spots of light – these are from uplighters along the walls, which are another source of ambient light, and are also worth being aware of – perhaps I might want to do a shot from a very low angle which has the ceiling in the frame. Knowing these lights are lighting that ceiling I can decide whether to expose to include them or exclude them from the final image.  Or conversely if my exposure means they get super bright, I may change my perspective to exclude the ceiling from the image.

One other photo from the back, this is a brighter exposure and might help to see if there’s any other light we need to be aware of:

We can see lots of guests. What’s lighting them?  It’s actually bounced light thanks to those large bright walls and ceiling.  The sunlight shines in the windows, hits walls, and bounces back, and a bit like flinging a bouncing ball towards the corner of the room, it keeps bouncing around off any surface it hits, albeit with diminishing effect.

So now we have a second way to photograph guests – expose for this bounce light (which is probably 1.5 to 2 stops darker than the direct light), and frame the shot such that the much brighter direct light is not distracting (or comes from a direction which is not as distracting).

Cue backlight:

This is now from the north wall looking more towards the sun (it’s now coming from back camera right, or about 2 o’clock on a clock face if I’m standing at 6 o’clock), and I have changed my exposure to hold highlight detail.  My camera retains a LOT of shadow detail which is easily recovered in Lightroom to give the frame you see here. You can still see the effects of the direct light here too – because of the direction, now it’s a rim light for some guests (but has no effect on others).

Another slight change of direction such that I’m shooting directly into the sun to take full advantage of it as a back light:

The lens choice is important here – I’m shooting this at 85mm so as to limit my frame to the guests who are in that shaft of light, such that virtually everyone in the frame has a hair light.  And then I just wait for the reaction.

So now that I’ve worked that bounced fill light from the walls – none of it created by me, remember – let’s return to that hard direct light.  Thanks to that simple exercise early on of taking a wide shot of the church and using it to see what the light is doing, I’ve already established where there are pools of light, and where they will move as time goes on.  I know also that the singer, Cara O’Sullivan, is a very important part of the ceremony for the bride, who is a big fan of hers, so all along in my head I am thinking of a shot that captures the bride, the singer, and tells something of that story.  From where I will capture it, and indeed when, is entirely led by the light.

This is the result:

Having read through the process of getting to this point, you can hopefully start to see how the light has influenced this photo.  It was taken only a few minutes after the establishing shot at the top because the singer was already starting to fall in a pool of light and I just had to wait a few minutes for the light to fall on the bride also (and for her to look towards it). All going well, the singer would sing again when everything was nicely aligned and I was standing in the right place.

The expression on the bride’s face is a nice bonus, but one I banked on, knowing that this aspect of the ceremony was important to her, and she’d likely be thrilled at hearing the singing. In terms of that idea of composition leading the viewer through the frame, my focus is intentionally on the singer – the viewers eye will start there simply because she’s what is in focus – but I’m using light (and only light) to bring in the second but important element of the bride. It doesn’t really matter to the story that the bride is out of focus due to the shallow depth of field, all the important information from that expression is identifiable, and that second pool of light will bring a viewer’s eye to that part of the frame.

Is it an award-winning photo? No.  Did the bride and groom like it?  I hope so. Does it assist telling the story of the day?  Certainly.  And does it make use of the (arguably difficult) ambient light to achieve this?  It sure does.